Rock River Valley Chapter of the Studebaker Drivers Club

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Source Information:

The information presented on this page comes from combing through information found on the internet, especially the Classic Car Database, How Stuff Works, Concept Carz, and Wikipedia.  I also used hard copy, Turning Wheels, Studebaker the Complete Story, and Crestline's Studebaker Cars.  When I had “Studebaker” information I used those sources first.  Any errors in the translation of the information I used is solely mine.  Some opinions, rather then fact, most likely crept into some of the commentary.

The Studebaker Champion is born:

When the 1935 model year ends, Studebaker holds 1.4 percent of the U.S. auto market, 50,000 cars. Studebaker President Paul G. Hoffman would tell the board that Studebaker needs at least a four percent market share (roughly125,000 vehicles per year) to survive and that he did not believe real market share increases could be had within Studebaker's current product line.  Studebaker will need some share of the low-price market.

In early 1935, Hoffman gathered the engineering staff.  Most had been involved in someway with Studebaker's previous two ventures into the low-price market.   To avoid the mistakes of the Erskine and Rockne failures, Hoffman commissions a survey by marketing research firm “Facts, Inc.,” to identify what people did and did not want in their automobile.   Over 5,000 respondents, preferred a full-size car, with a minimum of six cylinders, a comfortable ride, operating economy, and at a cost of $600 to $800.  Near everyone surveyed said fuel economy was their greatest concern and the most disappointing feature of their current automobile.   No wonder, the average automobile of the time was achieving only 13.6 mpg. Hoffman, knew the low-priced-three were sharing designs and components with their medium-priced lines. That meant large and heavy engines, a chassis to match, and a reduction in operating efficiency.   With a smaller, lighter engine in a light weight car, maybe Studebaker maybe could carve a niche in the low-price market.

So Hoffman tapped chief engineer Roy E. Cole for the engine design.  Cole hand-picked engineers1 and moved the design group to Detroit, into the old EMF building, to avoid distractions from anyone not directly involved in the project.  The team was given “clean sheet of paper” opportunity, free from designing an engine with room to grow.  Cole's engine team, was headed by Eugene Hardig.   They created a flathead six, (164.3 cid) that only weighed 455 pounds, including transmission, 155 pounds lighter than a comparable “Big Three” engine, yielding only six less horsepower.  Bore and stroke measured 3.00 x 3 7/8 inches.  Compression ratio was set at 6.25:1.   The crankshaft had integral balance weights, running in four main bearings of 2.29-inch diameter, 10-42 percent more bearing surface area per cubic inch than competitive engines.   Crank rigidity eliminates the need for weighty vibration dampers and all main and connecting-rod bearings were interchangeable steel-back Babbitt-lined types.  In fact, this engine would persist in South Bend with only minor variations through the 1960 model year, after which Studebaker gave it an overhead-valve cylinder head.  (See Studebaker Engine History on this site for more information).

With the engine designed, Studebaker could build an automobile around it.   Step one would be to purchase eight low-priced cars, four US and four Europe.   They were disassembled, the parts weighted , and the designs studied to determine where weight reductions and strength adds could be had.   The result, a new chassis, with straight cross members, in the usual "X," and fully boxed at the center, unusually deep at 7.9 inches.   Stiffer and stronger (per pound) than any previous frame design, and 30-percent lighter than the competitors.   Wheelbase is 110 inches, just two inches less than the 1939 Ford and Chevy.   Front suspension, an improved lighter version of the "Planar" independent system, introduced with Studebaker's 1935 models.   Transverse semi-elliptic spring with 11 leaves clamped to the box section of the front frame cross member.  Shocks, medaille double-action hydraulic units front and rear.  Steering, Ross twin-lever gear with variable ratio (19.5 to 24:1).  A 17-inch steering wheel enhanced handling ease, as did needle bearing in the knuckle pins.   A lighter engine, allows 46 pounds to be trimmed from the suspension, wheels, and steering.  The frame weighed 68 pounds less than the competition and the rear axle assembly was lighter by 33 pounds.   In all, 357 pounds reduction on the rolling chassis and drive line, including some 80 pounds in unsprung weight.  Supposedly, every pound of unsprung weight equals five pounds of sprung weight, so that 80-pound reduction actually amounted to about 400 pounds so far as ride was concerned.

Studebaker had started to use the services of Loewy and Associates in 1936 and they are selected for the Champion body design.  Loewy, tended to function more as a "front man" with Studebaker and is often credited with work not solely his own.  Most of the actual work was done by talented subordinates.  The Champion would be penned by Clare Hodgman.  Being the firm's first Studebaker commission, Hodgman would work from New York.  The success of this project would led Loewy to eventually set up a special studio in South Bend.   Chassis and engine work is nearly complete when Hodgman gets the assignment, so he has all the information he needs.  Studebaker wants a conservative, "lightweight" design.   Hodgman creates an attractive, contemporary body, with several features not found on other low-priced cars.   He omitted running boards (first low-priced car with this feature) and used concealed door and trunk hinges. The interior was designed for installation of the "Climatizer," that unit puts the heating unit below the driver's seat, so as to not to reduce leg room.  The complete body, including fenders and all hardware, ends up 125 pounds lighter than the competition's, yet looked just as substantial.

To build the new car, Studebaker installed more than $3 million worth of new equipment and tooling during 1938.  Engineers were testing four prototypes built with older-model Studebaker bodies.   Each was driven over 100,000 miles at the proving grounds and on highways before being disassembled and checked for wear and damage.  This search for "bugs" took time, combine that with plant retooling and the new car's introduction moves from fall 1938 to April 1939.   However, that actually worked in Studebaker's favor, as dealer used-car inventories were now exceptionally low and the new model would not have to share the spotlight with earlier 1939 Studebaker's.

Initially, the car remained nameless, referred to inside the company as the "X-model."   We do know that the name "Champion" wasn't decided upon until mid-January of 1939.  Champion had been seen in Studebaker advertising since 1928.  The 1935 catalog was titled "Studebaker Champions."  However the last-minute selection left no time to register "Champion" as a trademark and name wouldn't appear on the cars themselves until the 1941.   Three Champions were assembled on January 30,1939, followed by a single car on February 8th, 23 on the 9th, and finally 24 on the 10th.  All were four-door sedans painted Morocco Gray.  The production line was then shut down and everyone in engineering was given a car to drive at least 10,000 miles.   Among them was Ray Sharp, Ray recalled driving his Champ to Omaha, Nebraska, and returning in a blizzard (which likely explains why he still remembers how well the Climatizer worked).  Sharp and other staff had nothing but praise for the new car.   With this one last seal of approval, chief engineer Cole gave the go-ahead for full production.

Footnote1 In addition to Cole and Hardig, the following engineering staff was involved.  William S. James (Chief Engineer), S. W. Sparrow (Research Engineer), and J. R. Hughes (Body Engineer).   Source: Studebaker The Complete Story (Cannon & Fox).